Willpower as an exhaustible resource

A new book called Switch targeting business types has a lot of food for thought about addiction.
First, the authors explore the tension between the emotional brain and the rational brain:
The unavoidable conclusion is this: Your brain isn’t of one mind.
But, to us, the duo’s tension is captured best by an analogy used by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt in his wonderful book The Happiness Hypothesis. Haidt says that our emotional side is an Elephant and our rational side is its Rider. Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader. But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant. Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose. He’s completely overmatched. Most of us are all too familiar with situations in which our Elephant overpowers our Rider.
You’ve experienced this if you’ve ever slept in, overeaten, dialed up your ex at midnight, procrastinated, tried to quit smoking and failed, skipped the gym, gotten angry and said something you regretted, abandoned your Spanish or piano lessons, refused to speak up in a meeting because you were scared, and so on. Good thing no one is keeping score.
The weakness of the Elephant, our emotional and instinctive side, is clear: It’s lazy and skittish, often looking for the quick payoff (ice cream cone) over the long-term payoff (being thin). When change efforts fail, it’s usually the Elephant’s fault, since the kinds of change we want typically involve short-term sacrifices for long-term payoffs. (We cut back on expenses today to yield a better balance sheet next year. We avoid ice cream today for a better body next year.) Changes often fail because the Rider simply can’t keep the Elephant on the road long enough to reach the destination.
The Elephant’s hunger for instant gratification is the opposite of the Rider’s strength, which is the ability to think long-term, to plan, to think beyond the moment (all those things that your pet can’t do).
But what may surprise you is that the Elephant also has enormous strengths and that the Rider has crippling weaknesses. The Elephant isn’t always the bad guy. Emotion is the Elephant’s turf—love and compassion and sympathy and loyalty. That fierce instinct you have to protect your kids against harm—that’s the Elephant. That spine-stiffening you feel when you need to stand up for yourself—that’s the Elephant.
And even more important if you’re contemplating a change, the Elephant is the one who gets things done. To make progress toward a goal, whether it’s noble or crass, requires the energy and drive of the Elephant. And this strength is the mirror image of the Rider’s great weakness: spinning his wheels. The Rider tends to overanalyze and overthink things. Chances are, you know people with Rider problems: your friend who can agonize for twenty minutes about what to eat for dinner; your colleague who can brainstorm about new ideas for hours but can’t ever seem to make a decision.
If you want to change things, you’ve got to appeal to both. The Rider provides the planning and direction, and the Elephant provides the energy. So if you reach the Riders of your team but not the Elephants, team members will have understanding without motivation. If you reach their Elephants but not their Riders, they’ll have passion without direction. In both cases, the flaws can be paralyzing. A reluctant Elephant and a wheel-spinning Rider can both ensure that nothing changes. But when Elephants and Riders move together, change can come easily.
They then frame willpower as an “exhaustible resource”:
To see this point more clearly, consider the behavior of some college students who participated in a study about “food perception” (or so they were told). They reported to the lab a bit hungry; they’d been asked not to eat for at least three hours beforehand. They were led to a room that smelled amazing— the researchers had just baked chocolate-chip cookies. On a table in the center of the room were two bowls. One held a sampling of chocolates, along with the warm, fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies they’d smelled. The other bowl held a bunch of radishes.
The researchers had prepped a cover story: We’ve selected chocolates and radishes because they have highly distinctive tastes. Tomorrow, we’ll contact you and ask about your memory of the taste sensations you experienced while eating them.
Half the participants were asked to eat two or three cookies and some chocolate candies, but no radishes. The other half were asked to eat at least two or three radishes, but no cookies. While they ate, the researchers left the room, intending, rather sadistically, to induce temptation: They wanted those poor radish-eaters to sit there, alone, nibbling on rabbit food, glancing enviously at the fresh-baked cookies. (It probably goes without saying that the cookie-eaters experienced no great struggle in resisting the radishes.) Despite the temptation, all participants ate what they were asked to eat, and none of the radish-eaters snuck a cookie. That’s willpower at work.
At that point, the “taste study” was officially over, and another group of researchers entered with a second, supposedly unrelated study: We’re trying to find who’s better at solving problems, college students or high school students. This framing was intended to get the college students to puff out their chests and take the forthcoming task seriously.
The college students were presented with a series of puzzles that required them to trace a complicated geometric shape without retracing any lines and without lifting their pencils from the paper. They were given multiple sheets of paper so they could try over and over. In reality, the puzzles were designed to be unsolvable. The researchers wanted to see how long the college students would persist in a difficult, frustrating task before they finally gave up.
The “untempted” students, who had not had to resist eating the chocolate-chip cookies, spent 19 minutes on the task, making 34 well-intentioned attempts to solve the problem. The radish-eaters were less persistent. They gave up after only 8 minutes—less than half the time spent by the cookie-eaters—and they managed only 19 solution attempts. Why did they quit so easily?
The answer may surprise you: They ran out of self-control. In studies like this one, psychologists have discovered that self-control is an exhaustible resource. It’s like doing bench presses at the gym. The first one is easy, when your muscles are fresh. But with each additional repetition, your muscles get more exhausted, until you can’t lift the bar again. The radish-eaters had drained their self-control by resisting the cookies. So when their Elephants, inevitably, started complaining about the puzzle task—it’s too hard, it’s no fun, we’re no good at this—their Riders didn’t have enough strength to yank on the reins for more than 8 minutes. Meanwhile, the cookie-eaters had a fresh, untaxed Rider, who fought off the Elephant for 19 minutes.

4 thoughts on “Willpower as an exhaustible resource

  1. Thank you for articulating the concept that willpower is an exhaustible resource. I think you are absolutely right. I am a person with an untamed elephant. I have an addictive personality that succumbs quite easily to temptation, especially when I am tired of staying in control. That is why developing tools to help willpower out when it gets weak is so important. Having an educated and well trained rider who is aware of the hazards and power of temptation is infinitely helpful.

  2. Another interesting take on the reflective/reflexive brain, and the limitations of free will, is the 1999 Science News article "The Mental Butler Did It" by Bruce Bower. A web search on those words will find it. Provocative perhaps is a quote at the beginning: "Civilization advances by extending the number of operations which we can perform without thinking about them … Operations of thought are like cavalry charges in a battle — they are strictly limited in number, they require fresh horses, and must only be made at decisive moments." That's Alfred North Whitehead writing in 1911! Bower follows, "To put it another way, there's no such thing as free free will." The article never mentions addiction, but it's clear to me at least that it's relevant here. An addict's suspension of free will is an extension of a normal process, not something wholly unique to the addicted brain.

  3. Great comments. Thanks so much. It's helpful to think of addiction as a gross exaggeration of a universal experience.

  4. I love this analogy and fully intend to use it in a talk I'm doing tomorrow! (With credits, of course)

Comments are closed.